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“Higher education is odd in that we don’t typically teach teachers how to teach, students how to learn, or administrators how to lead,” Todd Zakrajsek, associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, observed in The New Science of Learning. In much the same way, we place students in team projects without coaching them on how to achieve team success. As a consequence, students’ most memorable takeaways are often how much they hate teamwork.

If you’ve ever announced a group project in class, you’ll recall the all-too-familiar groans, sighs and eye rolls. In some cases, faculty find assigning group work just as unpleasant, resenting the role of mediator between quarreling students and struggling to address the ubiquitous problem of social loafing.

Unfortunately, our students are left to navigate the complexities of group work in a “sink or swim” approach. And adding the virtual component to the teamwork equation has raised the degree of difficulty even higher -- something we’re all painfully aware of these days. Although enduring team dysfunctions may have some value, students frequently miss out on the other side of the coin: the tools and strategies on how to avoid and overcome those dysfunctions. While I teach the following lessons in my M.B.A. class on leading teams, they are beneficial to emphasize in any class requiring group work, whether online or in person.

No. 1: Build trust. Trust lies at the heart of successful teams. While we traditionally think of trust as reliability -- for example, “I trust you to do your job” -- in the context of teams, the emotions of trust are also key. Team members must be open and honest about their opinions, as well as willing to be vulnerable with one another (i.e., psychological safety).

Student teams that meet for a few weeks will probably not reach the level of trust that high-performing teams achieve in the workplace. But instructors can use strategies like the following to help students move in that direction and build enough trust to achieve team success:

  • Develop social bonds within each team. Use icebreakers, not just as a whole class, but also to strengthen relationships among team members. Check out Professors at Play for fun ideas.
  • Move from breaking the ice to building trust. Facilitate teams to discuss more “vulnerable” topics. (For instance, “Outside of your family, who would you consider your biggest role model?”)
  • For more in-depth projects requiring semester-long teams, have each student share a “user manual” with their teammates. Each student would describe aspects about themselves that would be helpful for teammates to know, such as strengths, blind spots, personality, stressors, motivators and how they learn best. (Here are some user manual templates).

No. 2: Create alignment. One of the biggest reasons why teams fail is their inability to move from me to we. One tool that instructors can use to help students accomplish this transition is through a team charter or contract. Experts in business and education researchers agree that team charters improve communication, cohesion and satisfaction.

You can facilitate this activity in a number of ways, but some of the typical elements in a charter include:

  • How are the different roles and responsibilities distributed equitably among the team?
  • What norms/expectations do we establish for meetings (frequency, attendance, timeliness)?
  • What communication tools will we use for discussion (Email, GroupMe, Slack)?
  • What tools will we use for collaborating on assignments (Google Docs, OneDrive, etc.)?
  • How will we handle making decisions amid conflicting opinions?
  • How will we hold each other accountable to the norms we establish together?

As one can see from the questions, not every team will have the same charter. Thus, the value is in the process just as much as the outcome. This exercise provides a framework for students to discuss and gain alignment on key factors for team success. For guidance on how to help your students create charters, check out this detailed guide.

No. 3: Provide opportunities for practice. Effective teams ensure members are prepared with a foundational understanding of what it takes to achieve success in a team context. This process cannot be reserved for leadership classes alone. While not every class needs to cover successful team strategies, it would be beneficial for colleges and universities to invest the time up front to help students learn how to be effective team members. For example, early on in students’ degree programs or during their orientations, discuss cases and exercises related to teamwork (e.g., Harvard Business Review’s Teamwork Turmoil, SHRM’s Managing Virtual Teams or On Course’s Team Work Case).

The members are different in each class, so students must repeat the processes of building trust and alignment with their new teams. You may be thinking, “This is not a management class. I don’t have time to incorporate these!” Remember, spending time in this early stage of forming teams will save you time in the long run, as you will have fewer problems to manage later on. Interestingly, it was a freshman engineering course that led to my first experience creating a team charter, and two decades later, that process has stayed with me throughout my corporate and academic career.

It’s also meaningful to reflect on why we assign group work in the first place. Research shows the benefits of student teams include improved knowledge acquisition and retention, higher-level reasoning, and creative problem solving. Beyond just learning the content well, “Collaborative learning teaches students to work together when the stakes are relatively low, so that they can work together effectively later on when the stakes are high,” wrote the late Kenneth Bruffee, professor of English at Brooklyn College. Imagine how much value we can provide students in helping them learn the principles of teamwork early on in their college journey, and then giving them the opportunity to practice those concepts in a variety of subjects -- not just once, but in different classes, each time with another diverse set of students. That’s valuable practice for students in any field.

The formula for developing successful student teams includes building trust, creating alignment and providing opportunities to practice. While those elements apply to all teams, they are even more crucial in virtual contexts. Including the tools I’ve described in our pedagogy will impact student outcomes in and out of the classroom by aiding them in cultivating a lifelong skill -- one that will make them infinitely more prepared for the many teams they will encounter in the workplace and beyond.

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